Thatcher memoirs

Falling from power: Cabinet overboard [memoirs extract]

Document type: Press
Source: Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years (1993), pp850-58
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 3580 words
Themes: Conservative (leadership elections), Defence (Gulf War, 1990-91)

The Views of the Cabinet

[extract from Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years (1993), pp850-58]

I could, of course, have concentrated my efforts for the second ballot on winning over the backbenchers directly. Perhaps I should have done. But the earlier meetings had persuaded me that it was essential to mobilise Cabinet Ministers not just to give formal support, but also to go out and persuade junior Ministers and backbenchers to back me. In asking for their support, however, I was also putting myself at their mercy. If a substantial number of Cabinet colleagues refused their backing, there could be no disguising the fact afterwards. I recalled a complaint from Churchill , then Prime Minister, to his Chief Whip that talk of his resignation in the Parliamentary Party - he would shortly be succeeded by Anthony Eden - was undermining his authority. Without that authority, he could not be an effective Prime Minister. Similarly, a Prime Minister who knows that his or her Cabinet has withheld its support is fatally weakened. I knew - and I am sure they knew - that I would not willingly remain an hour in 10 Downing Street without real authority to govern.

As I have said, I had spoken to Douglas Hurd and John Major already, though I had not directly sought their views about what I should do. I had already seen Cecil Parkinson after returning from the tea room. He told me that I should remain in the race, that I could count on his unequivocal support and that it would be a hard struggle but that I could win. Nick Ridley , no longer in the Cabinet but a figure of more than equivalent weight, also assured me of his complete support. Ken Baker had made clear his total commitment to me. The Lord Chancellor and Lord Belstead , Leader of the Lords, were not really significant players in the game. And John Wakeham was my campaign manager. But all the others I would see in my room in the House of Commons.

Over the next two hours or so, each Cabinet Minister came in, sat down on the sofa in front of me and gave me his views. Almost to a man they used the same formula. This was that they themselves would back me, of course, but that regretfully they did not believe I could win.

In fact, as I well realised, they had been feverishly discussing what they should say in the rooms off the Commons Cabinet corridor above my room. Like all politicians in a quandary, they had sorted out their "line to take" and they would cling to it through thick and thin. After three or four interviews, I felt I could almost join in the chorus. Whatever the monotony of the song, however, the tone and human reactions of those whom came into my room that evening offered dramatic contrasts.

My first Ministerial visitor was not a member of the Cabinet at all. Francis Maude , Angus's son and Minister of State at the Foreign Office, whom I regarded as a reliable ally, told me that he passionately supported the things I believed in, that he would back me as long as I went on, but that he did not believe I could win. He left in a state of some distress; nor had he cheered me up noticeably.

Ken Clarke now entered. His manner was robust in the brutalist style he has cultivated: the candid friend. He said that this method of changing Prime Ministers was farcical, and that he personally would be happy to support me for another five or ten years. Most of the Cabinet, however, thought that I should stand down. Otherwise, not only would I lose; I would "lose big". If that were to happen, the Party would go to Michael Heseltine and end up split. So Douglas and John should be released from their obligation to me and allowed to stand, since either had a better chance than I did. Then the solid part of the Party could get back together. Contrary to persistent rumours, Ken Clarke at no point threatened to resign.

Peter Lilley , obviously ill at ease, came in next. From the message I had received in Paris, I knew roughly what to expect from him. He duly announced that he would support me if I stood but that it was inconceivable that I would win. Michael Heseltine must not be allowed to get the leadership or all my achievements would be threatened. The only way to prevent this was to make way for John Major.

Of course, I had not been optimistic about Ken Clarke and Peter Lilley for quite different reasons. But I had written off my next visitor, Malcolm Rifkind , in advance. After Geoffrey's departure, Malcolm was probably my sharpest personal critic in the Cabinet and he did not soften his criticism on this occasion. He said bluntly that I could not win, and that either John or Douglas would do better. Still, even Malcolm did not declare against me. When I asked him whether I would have his support if I did stand, he said that he would have to think about it. Indeed, he gave the assurance that he would never campaign against me. Silently, I thanked God for small mercies.

After so much commiseration, it was a relief to talk to Peter Brooke . He was, as always, charming, thoughtful and loyal. He said he would fully support me whatever I chose to do. Being in Northern Ireland, he was not closely in touch with Parliamentary opinion and could not himself offer an authoritative view of my prospects. But he believed I could win if I went ahead with all guns blazing. Could I win if all guns did not blaze? That was something I was myself beginning to doubt.

My next visitor was Michael Howard , another rising star who shared my convictions. Michael's version of the Cabinet theme was altogether stronger and more encouraging. Although he doubted my prospects, he himself would not only support me but would campaign vigorously for me.

William Waldegrave , my most recent Cabinet appointment, arrived next. William was very formal. I could hardly expect more from someone who did not share my political views. But he declared very straightforwardly that it would be dishonourable for someone to accept a place in my Cabinet one week and not support me three weeks later. He would vote for me as long as I was a candidate. But he had a sense of foreboding about the result. It would be a catastrophe if corporatist policies took over, which of course, was another way of saying that Michael Heseltine should be held at bay.

At this point I received a note from John Wakeham who wanted an urgent word with me. Apparently, the position was much worse than he had thought. I was not surprised. It was hardly any better from where I was sitting.

John Gummer bounced in next. His position was, on the face of it, not easy to predict. He was a passionate European, but he apparently shared the same general philosophy of government as I did. In fact I was mildly curious as to how he would resolve this tension. But he reeled off the standard formula that he would support me if I decided to stand, but as a friend he should warn me that I could not win, and so I should move aside and let John and Douglas stand.

John Gummer was followed by Chris Patten . Chris and I had worked together for many years from the time when he was Director of the Conservative Research Department until I brought him into the Cabinet in 1989. He had a way with words, and perhaps this had too easily convinced me that he and I always put the same construction upon them. But he was a man of the left. So I could hardly complain when he told me that he would support me but that I could not win, and so on.

Even melodramas have intervals, even Macbeth has the porter's scene. I now had a short talk with Alan Clark , Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence, and a gallant friend, who came round to lift my spirits with the encouraging advice that I should fight on at all costs. Unfortunately, he went on to argue that I should fight on even though I was bound to lose because it was better to go out in a blaze of glorious defeat than to go gentle into that good night. Since I had no particular fondness for Wagnerian endings, this lifted my spirits only briefly. But I was glad to have someone unambiguously on my side even in defeat.

By now John Wakeham and Ken Baker had turned up to speak to me, and their news was not good. John said that he now doubted whether I could get the support of the Cabinet. What I had been hearing did not suggest that he was wrong. He added that he had tried to put together a campaign team but was not succeeding even at that. I had realised by now that I was not dealing with Polish cavalrymen; but I was surprised that neither Tristan Garel-Jones nor Richard Ryder were prepared to serve as John's lieutenants because they believed I could not win.

Tristan Garel-Jones had, of course, served on my campaign team the previous year when my position was not seriously under threat. Nonetheless, I could not find it in my heart to be really disappointed in him now. His view of Conservative politics had always been that the line of least resistance is the best course, and I suppose he was only being consistent. But it was a personal as well as a political blow to learn that Richard, who had come with me to No.10 all those years ago as my Political Secretary and whom I had moved up the ladder as quickly as I decently could, was deserting at the first whiff of grapeshot.

Ken Baker went on to report that the position had deteriorated since we had spoken that morning. He had found between ten and twelve members of the Cabinet who did not think I could win. And if they thought that, there would not be enough enthusiasm to carry the day. Even so he believed that I should carry on. But he floated Tom King 's suggestion - which I was myself to hear from Tom a little later - that I should promise to stand down after Christmas if I won. The idea was that that this would allow me to see through the Gulf War. I could not accept this: I would have no authority in the meantime and I would need all I could muster for the forthcoming battles in the European Community.

After John and Ken had left, Norman Lamont came in and repeated the formula. The position, he said, was beyond repair. Everything we had achieved on industry and Europe would be jeopardised by a victory for Michael Heseltine. Everything but Robertson Hare 's "Oh Calamity."

John MacGregor now appeared and somewhat belatedly gave me the news that I lacked support in the Cabinet which he had felt unable to convey to me earlier in the day. He too eschewed any originality and stuck by the formula. Tom King said the usual things, though more warmly than most. He added the suggestion trailed by Ken Baker that I should offer to stand down at a specific date in the future. I rejected this suggestion, but I was grateful for the diversion.

In all the circumtances, it was a relief to see David Waddington enter and sit down on the sofa. Here was a steadfast friend but, as I quickly saw, one in the deepest distress. All David's instincts were to fight on. For him the argument that battle should not be joined because defeat was likely had none of the attraction that it did for some of his colleagues. It was not an evasion, nor a disguised threat, nor a way of abandoning my cause without admitting the fact. It was a reluctant recognition of reality. But as a former Chief Whip - and how often in recent days had I wished that he still held that office - he knew that support for me in the Cabinet had collapsed. David said that he wanted me to win and would support me but could not guarantee a victory. He left my room with tears in his eyes.

The last meeting was with Tony Newton who, though clearly nervous, just about managed to get out the agreed line. He did not think I could win, etc., etc. Nor, by now, did I. John Wakeham came in again and elaborated further on what he had earlier told me. I had lost the Cabinet's support. I could not even muster a credible campaign team. It was the end.

I was sick at heart. I could have resisted the opposition of opponents and potential rivals and even respected them for it; but what grieved me was the desertion of those I had always considered friends and allies and the weasel words whereby they had transmuted their betrayal into frank advice and concern for my fate. I dictated a brief statement of my resignation to be read out at Cabinet the following morning. But I said that I would return to No.10 to talk to Denis before finally taking my decision.

I was preparing to return when Norman Tebbit arrived with Michael Portillo . Michael was Minister of State at the DoE with responsibility for Local Government and the Community Charge. He was beyond any questioning a passionate supporter of everything we stood for. He tried to convince me that the Cabinet were misreading the situation, that I was being misled and that with a vigorous campaign it would still be possible to turn things round. With even a drop of this spirit in higher places, it might indeed have been possible. But that was just not there. Then another group of loyalists from the 92 Group of MPs arrived in my room - George Gardiner , John Townend , Edward Leigh , Chris Chope and a number of others. They had a similar message to Michael. I was immensely grateful for their support and warmth, and said that I would think about what to do. Then at last I returned to No.10. ***


I went up to see Denis Denis Thatcher on my return. There was not much to say, but he comforted me. He had given me his own verdict earlier and it had turned out to be right. After a few minutes I went down to the Cabinet Room to start work on the speech I was to deliver in the following day's No Confidence debate. My Private Office had already prepared a first draft, conceived under very different circumstances. Norman Tebbit and - for some reason - John Gummer came in to help. It was a mournful occasion. Every now and again I found I had to wipe away a tear as the enormity of what had happened crowded in.

While we worked on into the night, Michael Portillo returned with two other last-ditchers, Michael Forsyth and Michael Fallon . They were not allowed to see me as I was engrossed in the speech. But when I was told that they had been sent away, I said that I would naturally see them, and they were summoned back. They arrived about mid-night and tried in vain to convince me that all was not lost.

Before I went to bed that night I stressed how important it was to ensure that John Major's own nomination papers were ready to be submitted before the tight deadline if indeed I stood down. I said that I would sleep on my own resignation, as I always did with important matters, before making my final decision; but it would be very difficult to prevail if the Cabinet did not have their hearts in the campaign.

At 7.30 the next morning - Thursday 22nd November - I telephoned down to Andrew Turnbull that I had finally resolved to resign. The private office put into action the plan already agreed for an Audience with the Queen. Peter Morrison telephoned Douglas Hurd and John Major to inform them of my decision. John Wakeham and Ken Baker were also told. I cleared the text of the press statement due to be issued later in the morning, spent half an hour of rather desultory briefing with Bernard Bernard Ingham , Charles Charles Powell and John for Questions in the House, and then just before 9 o'clock, went down to chair my last Cabinet.

Normally in the Cabinet ante-room Ministers would be standing around in groups, arguing and joking. On this occasion there was silence. They stood with their backs against the wall looking in every direction except mine. There was a short delay: John MacGregor had been held up in the traffic. Then the Cabinet filed, still in silence, into the Cabinet Room.

I said that I had a statement to make. Then I read it out:

"Having consulted widely among my colleagues, I have concluded that the unity of the Party and the prospects of victory in a general election would be better served if I stood down to enable Cabinet colleagues to enter the ballot for the leadership. I should like to thank all those in the Cabinet and outside who have given me such dedicated support".

The Lord Chancellor then read out a statement of tribute to me, which Ministers agreed should be written into the Cabinet minutes. Most of that day and the next few days, I felt as if I were sleepwalking rather than experiencing and feeling everything that happened. Every now and then, however, I would be overcome by the emotion of the occasion and give way to tears. The Lord Chancellor's reading of this tribute was just such a difficult moment. When he had finished and I had regained my composure, I said that it was vital that the Cabinet should stand together to safeguard all that we believed in. That was why I was standing down. The Cabinet should unite to back the person most likely to beat Michael Heseltine. By standing down I had enabled others to come forward who were not burdened by a legacy of bitterness from ex-Ministers who had been sacked. Party unity was vital. Whether one, two or three colleagues stood, it was essential that Cabinet should remain united and support their favourites in that spirit.

Ken Baker on behalf of the Party and then Douglas Hurd as the senior member of the Cabinet made their own short tributes. I could bear no more of this, fearing I would lose my composure entirely, and concluded the discussion with the hope that I would be able to offer the new leader total and devoted support. There was then a ten minute break for courtesy calls to be made to the offices of the Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Party ( Jim Molyneaux of the Unionists could not be contacted) and a statement was accordingly issued at 9.25.

The Cabinet meeting then resumed. It was almost business as usual. This ranged from matters of the utmost triviality - an unsuccessful Fisheries Council ruined by incompetent Italian chairmanship - to matters of the greatest importance, the decision to increase our forces in the Gulf by sending a second armoured Brigade. Somehow I got through it by concentrating on details, and the formal Cabinet ended at about 10.15. But I invited Ministers to stay on. It was a relief to have more or less normal conversation on what was uppermost in our minds, namely the likely outcome of the second ballot, over coffee.

After Cabinet I signed personal messages to Presidents Bush and Gorbachev, European Community and G7 Heads of Government, and a number of Gulf leaders. Douglas and John were by now busily organising their campaigns, both of them having decided to stand.

Later I worked on my speech for the afternoon debate. By this time I was beginning to feel that a great weight had been lifted from me. A No Confidence debate would have been a taxing ordeal if I had been fighting on with so many of the Cabinet, junior Ministers and backbenchers against me. Now that I had announced my departure, however, I would again enjoy the united support of the Tory Party. Now it would be roses, roses, all the way. And since this would be my last major parliamentary performance as Prime Minister, I determined to defend the achievements of the last eleven years in the same spirit as I had fought for them.

After a brief Audience with the Queen I returned to No.10 for lunch. I had a quick drink with members of my staff in the study. I was suddenly conscious that they too had their futures to think about, and I found myself now and later comforting them almost as much as they sought to comfort me. Crawfie had begun the packing. Joy was sorting out outstanding Constituency business. Denis was clearing his desk. But I had more public duties to perform. I held my normal briefing meeting for Questions and then left for the House at just before 2.30.